Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 4, 2013
Francesco Benelli The Architecture in Giotto's Paintings New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 312 pp.; 10 color ills.; 108 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9781107016323)

Scholarship on Giotto’s architecture has focused on work such as the campanile in Florence (1334) as well as other buildings he is said to have designed, along with the origins of Giotto’s depicted structures, whether and how he based these renderings on actual buildings. To this point, Decio Gioseffi’s Giotto architetto (Milan: Edizioni di Comunità, 1963) is the only monograph dedicated to the full span of Giotto’s painted architecture—in addition to discussing his role as architect. In Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250–1400 (3rd ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), John White brilliantly analyses a few frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua. Gary Radke, in a succinct and compelling essay gives an assessment of Giotto’s painted architecture; unlike Gioseffi, his survey is selective, but he offers a more nuanced understanding of Giotto’s role as architect, arguing carefully that the Arena Chapel, for example, was not designed by him (Gary Radke, “Giotto and Architecture,” in Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Giotto, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 76–102). Francesco Benelli’s new book, The Architecture in Giotto’s Paintings, focuses exclusively and exhaustively on Giotto’s painted architecture. By deploying the theoretical framework of his mentor, the architectural historian Arnaldo Bruschi, Benelli seeks to integrate the work of architectural historians (who have focused on individual buildings in the paintings) with the work of art historians (who have considered questions of pictorial space within a fresco and compositional questions concerning architectural features as they relate to each other in a cycle or on a wall), and thereby to offer “a new key for reading and new criteria for interpreting” painted architecture (9).

As he begins his first chapter, on the Upper Church of S. Francesco, Assisi, Benelli posits four categories of depicted architecture: “the architectural frame, the impossible and ideal buildings, the representation of existing buildings, and finally possible and realistic buildings” (13). He discusses the Upper Church’s St. Francis cycle in that order, and makes many detailed and astute comparisons as he moves along. He relates the depicted buildings in the Upper Church to Roman precedents and Christian churches; he distinguishes between symbolic/allegorical renderings of buildings and Giotto’s touches of realism; and he gives important attention to the Franciscan mission embedded in the language of the architecture.

Benelli’s second chapter, on the Arena Chapel in Padua, offers some sound observations on the way the aspirations of Enrico Scrovegni, the chapel’s patron, helped to determine some of the choices in the depicted architecture. But marbled into Benelli’s commentary are moments when he does not fully acknowledge a controversy (e.g., citing only sources that support the claim that Giotto was the architect of the chapel) or when he arrives unexpectedly at a sweeping generalization: “In the Scrovegni Chapel Giotto abandoned both the categories of ‘ideal building’ and those painted structures coming from a Byzantine or Medieval iconographical tradition” (96). The language here implies that one can extrapolate from the depicted architecture some sort of development in the artist. And yet, his conclusion to this chapter is more subtle and convincing:

In the Assisi cycle, the ultimate goal is to celebrate the triumph of St. Francis and his order. The architecture, therefore, needs to follow a triumphal code through the language of the great Roman structures. Enrico Scrovegni’s goal is radically different in that he wishes to . . . express his hope for absolution from his family’s engagement in usury. . . . The architecture of the cycle is neither lavish nor opulent, but rather plain and inspired mainly by local, ‘modern’ buildings, yet retaining a certain level of abstract code. (108)

The third chapter, on the Bardi Chapel and the Peruzzi Chapel in Sta. Croce, Florence, again offers some intriguing interpretations of Giotto’s choices; in particular is Benelli’s reading of the allusion to the Roman Torre delle Milizie in the Feast of Herod of 1320 (121 ff.). But along the way one wonders how these readings will come together. As opposed to the previous chapters, here we are given only a somewhat Vasarian flourish near the conclusion: “By the time Giotto finished the Peruzzi and Bardi chapels, he had fully reinvented and restored the painted architecture of antiquity” (137).

Chapter 4, focusing on the Lower Church of S. Francesco, Assisi, is perhaps the most difficult to assess. It seems as if a new book on Giotto’s influence begins at this point. As early as the introduction, Benelli acknowledges the knotty problems of attribution and chronology for the Lower Church. (Curiously, in the first chapter he spends little time with the comparable problem of multiple workshops in the Upper Church.) Although the argument seems to have taken a new direction, the observations and comparisons continue to be careful and convincing. But in the discussion of the St. Nicholas Chapel, the Magdalene Chapel, and the transept Infancy Cycle, the point seems to be a rather loose (if not obvious) one about the influence of Giotto or the continuity between the artist and his workshop.

Chapters 5 and 6, “Giotto’s Legacy in the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi” and “Giotto’s Legacy at Santa Croce in Florence,” respectively, intend to explore the way certain themes were interpreted and developed by Giotto’s followers. Here the discussion is clear and convincing, although not earth-shaking; for example, “Simone Martini . . . absorbed the innovations of Assisi . . . without forsaking his Sienese background” (182).

While Benelli’s discussion is, to say the least, thorough, the “new key” for interpretation that he promises in his introduction is not always evident in the course of his argument. However, his concluding chapter is written cleanly and effectively. Much of this summary would have served the reader well in the introductory chapter—acting as a kind of road map. Throughout the body of the text, it is occasionally unclear if Benelli’s intent is to demonstrate the evolution of Giotto’s personal conception of painted architecture, or the adjustment Giotto makes in painted architecture given the patronal or cultural context of his commission. Because of the vexed questions of chronology, attribution, and multiple workshops (particularly at Assisi), I found myself second-guessing Benelli’s position. It is not until the conclusion that it becomes more obvious that Benelli would have it both ways: Giotto is both an innovator of genius but also an artist whose vision must accommodate the aspirations of his patrons and the abilities of his coworkers. Again, it would have been useful to have this position staked out more firmly in the introduction.

At the level of style, the publisher should have helped the author (whose native language is, I assume, Italian) with some of the writing (on the grand scale of argument and clarity, such as the issue just mentioned, but especially on the smaller scale of phrasing and word choice). At times the descriptions of individual frescoes are quite dense, and one loses the sense of the forest amid such complicated trees. But the most significant lapse on the part of Cambridge University Press is not something that Benelli could entirely control: copyediting. When I first flipped through the book to get a sense of its scope and bibliographic depth, I felt as if I were looking at an uncorrected proof copy. Bibliography entries are missing. Sites and monuments are inconsistently named (sometimes “Upper Basilica,” sometimes “Upper Church”); sites and monuments are inappropriately and erratically capitalized: (“Early Christian Basilica,” “Early Christian basilica,” and “early Christian basilica”; “Kunst Historisches Institut”). Some quotations are entirely in italics, while others on the same page are in roman (4). Saint designations are random; for example, “St. Apollinare,” “San Prospero,” and “S. Lorenzo” coexist in the same paragraph (82); at times there are odd combinations, like “St. Francesco” and “St. Domenico” (80), or the comic “San Mark in Venice” (102). Inexplicably, St. Clare is referred to as Clarissa in this odd sentence: “The procession stopped in front of the church of San Damiano to let Clarissa and the other sisters salute the Saint [sic]” (50).

The book’s bibliography strays in and out of alphabetical order: Barral, then Ascani, the Barresi. Moreover some of the names in the bibliography are incorrect: “Donald” instead of “Donal”; “Debers” instead of “Derbes.” The index is an absurd mess. It seems to follow mechanically the errors in the text; one suspects a software program mindlessly transferred coded proper nouns. For example, there is an entry for “upper Basilica” (with no reference to Assisi or S. Francesco) followed by six page entries; the next entry is “Upper Basilica” followed by three entries, two of which are not in “upper Basilica”). A full column of entries beginning with “The” is alphabetized under “T”; some of them are in italics, some in roman. Names are alphabetized without rhyme or reason: some names are alphabetized under first names (Alistair Smart is under A; John White is under J); some entries contain only surnames; there are entries for “Arnolfo,” “Arnolfo di,” and “Arnolfo di Cambio.”

Notwithstanding this carelessness at the hands of his publisher, Benelli deserves credit for his solid work in this his first monograph publication.

Mark Sandona
Professor, Department of English, Hood College

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